Henry VIII falls face-first in the fen and a lone heron stalks the rooftops in my Guardian Country Diary this morning… (click on image for link)
It was my childhood dream to see a hoopoe & today I got to write about it in The Guardian Country Diary. This one’s for you, Dad xx (Click on image for link)
This one’s been a long time in the writing & means a great deal to me – tracing my family history from our early shepherding roots living alongside the poet John Clare, through 1920s urban Manchester & into the present day. My thanks to Little Toller’s ‘The Clearing’ for the opportunity to share the story with readers…
It was such a pleasure to run this nature writing workshop for the Sussex Wildlife Trust, supported by Arts Council England and MEAction UK. Designed for anyone who enjoys watching nature out of the window, in the garden or in the local landscape, the workshop focuses on sharing experiences and developing our individual creative voices.
If you’d like to catch up with the video on YouTube, the session looks at different ways to connect with wildlife and landscape, how and where to find inspiration, and what form your writing might take. The workshop includes short guided writing exercises that can be developed into longer pieces afterwards. All you need is pen and paper (or a computer) and a natural object (feather, flower, piece of bark, etc.)
This is the first in a series of workshops for the project Moving Mountains. Led by Louise Kenward (writer in residence at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve), Moving Mountains is a new project focusing on nature writing for and by people living with chronic illness and/or physical disability. You can find out more about the project and further workshops at www.movingmountainsanthology.wordpress.com
It was such a privilege to be asked to contribute to Nicola Chester’s fantastic curated series on place, protest and belonging on The Clearing this week…
The towpath beside the River Lee is a study in mauve with sprays of Common Mallow (Malva sylvestris) sprawling along the verge and out over the water. Often reduced to stunted tufts in managed verges, wilder areas that have been spared the mower allow this jaunty perennial to spread luxuriantly, its stems trailing and reaching up to a metre.
In our wildflower meadow (if a 4m x 1m patch in the lawn merits such a name, which for idealism’s sake we think it does) Common Mallow’s open, five-petalled flowers colour in the gaps between Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra), Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) and Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis). It was the first flower my daughter learnt to identify and amongst the first I attempted to paint in watercolours, but our affection for this wildflower is just the latest chapter in its long history as a familiar plant growing outside the backdoor or down the lane.
As members of the Malvacaea family, Mallows are related to Hollyhocks (Alcea), Hibiscus and Limes (Tilia). Like Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata) and Large-leaved Lime (Tilia platyphyllos), Common Mallow has edible leaves and flowers, but the nutlets or fruits (known colloquially as ‘cheeses’) were the part of the plant most prized by children as a wayside snack.
I like to rewind a couple of centuries and imagine the children in my family munching on the nutty cheeses, a tradition recounted by poet John Clare who shared a cottage in rural Helpston in Northamptonshire with my shepherding ancestors back in the 1820s. In The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827), Clare describes a thresher musing on his childhood:
The sitting down, when school was oer
Upon the threshold by his door
Picking from mallows sport to please
Each crumpld seed he calld a cheese.
I can’t help wondering if, one summer morning in the late 1820s, my young great-great-great grandfather Henry might have picked a fistful of mallow nutlets to give him something to nibble on as he trotted beside his father on their way to tend the sheep in the Helpston fields. While Henry might have been thinking about his handful of cheeses, children in other counties knew them as ‘rags and tatters’, ‘old man’s bread and cheese’ or ‘Billy buttons’.
Mallows were also important for their medicinal properties with both Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta) and Common Mallow collected by the local herbalist in John Clare’s poem ‘The Village Doctress’ to add to her potions. They had a wide range of uses including as a laxative and purgative, and as poultices for bruises, inflammation and insect bites due to the soothing powers of the mucilage in the leaves.
Other native mallows in the UK include Musk-mallow (Malva moschata) with its delicate pinkish or occasionally white flowers in July and August, and slightly later from August to September, Marsh-mallow (Althaea officinalis), soft white with the merest whisper of rose-blush. Marsh-mallow was most valued for the demulcent properties of its leaves and roots – the latter was the original source of the glutinous substance in marshmallows, a sweet treat now commonly (and somewhat less romantically) concocted from sugar, water and gelatin.
Common Mallow’s nectar-rich flowers are a mauve magnet for pollinating insects. In 1999, a study at Cambridge University Botanic Garden revealed that Honeybees (Apis mellifera)and Red-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) were the most frequent visitors to both Musk-mallow and Common Mallow. Hoverflies, solitary bees and Small White (Pieris rapae) and Large White (Pieris brassicae) butterflies are also attracted to the blooms.
Caterpillars of the imaginatively-named Mallow Moth (Larentia clavaria) feed on Common Mallow, although they will forsake their main larval foodplant to feed on Hollyhocks in the garden too. If feeding caterpillars are disturbed, they drop to the ground and curl up, disguising themselves as mallow seeds. Least Yellow Underwing (Noctua interjecta) larvae eat Common Mallow leaves too, while Hollyhock Seed Moth (Pexicopia malvella) caterpillars seek out the seeds of Marsh-mallow as well as feeding on Hollyhocks.
Common Mallow thrives in most soils and is an ideal addition to a wildflower meadow (however small) and any sunny wildlife garden. Marsh-mallow is also easy to grow and its tall (1.2m) flower spikes have an elegant charm at the back of an informal or wildlife border. At the more modest height of 60-90cm, Musk-mallow suits sunny spots in wildflower meadows or the middle of cottage borders. It is a fairly short-lived perennial, but will self-seed.
Both common mallow and common lime have edible parts, but should be eaten with caution as nitrates in the soil (for mallow) and old flowers (for lime) can cause problems. Mallow should be avoided by people with gallstones. See the Plants for a Future database for further information.
To buy mallow plants and seeds, try Bee Happy Plants, Chiltern Seeds, Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, Scotia Seeds, Cumbria Wildflowers, Norfolk Herbs, PlantWild and other growers on the Peat Free Nurseries List.
If you’d like to read more articles on nature, gardening, wildflowers and the environment, you can follow my blog by clicking below to subscribe…
Nic Wilson and Dogwooddays do not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally. Always ensure it is legal to forage and where identification is concerned, if in doubt, leave it out.
Went for a lovely walk this afternoon that reminded me how vital our wild places are, especially at the moment. This is a piece on the importance of my local patch, first published Friday 9 October in The Guardian Country Diary.
There’s a spring-fed sliver of alder carr shaped like a thought bubble near the source of the River Purwell. Before the pandemic, I volunteered here with the local wildlife trust and I’m often drawn back to this swampy woodland in search of solace and inspiration. Alongside the holloway that skirts the carr’s eastern edge, I learnt to lay a hedge, or ‘plash’ it to use an old Hertfordshire term. On a raised bank unceremoniously named The Dump, I’ve coppiced elder and hazel to allow light to reach the understorey and when life is too loud and angular, I sit with the mosses or settle in the sedges on the riverbank and watch the little egrets fly by, trailing their washing-up glove feet behind them.
As I dip into the wood on this hazy autumn morning, the lopsided basketry of the laid hedge looks familiar and welcoming. After several grim housebound weeks recovering from Lyme Disease, the act of walking into the carr feels like an exhalation, a gentle homecoming. In front of me, as if anticipating my return, the wood’s last surviving black poplar has lowered a drawbridge – a vast plank of riven bark, taller than a woman, now lying across the path. The top half has fractured, sending corky chunks drifting off into a sea of dog’s mercury and hedge woundwort like a disintegrating life raft. This poplar’s days are numbered; already the wood is reclaiming its bare trunk in alder, elder and bittersweet spirals.
Mired in glassy black pools at the heart of the carr, titanic common alders rise twenty metres above the water. I walk across the spongy woodland floor, picking my way warily through the marshy areas, leaving a fenny trail in my wake as each footprint fills behind me. In the waterlogged soil, alder roots are engaged in symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi and the nitrogen-fixing bacterium Frankia alni in a mutually beneficial exchange of nutrients. I rest my head against the nearest alder trunk, feel the rasp of lichen on my cheek. I stand rooted here for a long time, transfixed by the fecundity of life beneath my feet and its invisible impact on the superficial layer – the tip of the iceberg – that we call wood.
The Wedgwood Garden, designed by Jo Thompson, marks the 260th anniversary of the company, founded by Josiah Wedgwood in 1759. The hard landscaping is inspired by Etruria – the pioneering Staffordshire village that Wedgwood built for his workers – and the canals that transported his pottery throughout the UK.
Many of Wedgwood’s motifs were based on Greek and Roman mythology and this influence is captured in the interlinked arches that provide multiple frames through which to view the garden. The importance of the Staffordshire canals are referenced in the watercourse that flows through the garden, connecting the architecture with the surrounding planting. The garden includes sculptures by Ben Barrell – ‘Erosion’ is a rippled stone surface inspired by centuries of erosion and ‘Poldhu Point’ is a bronze sculpture inspired by a headland on the Cornish coast.
The overarching conifers (Pinus nigra, Sequoia sempervirens and Cedrus atlantica) and soft colour palette of the shrubs, perennials and annuals creates a warm, secluded atmosphere, perfect for relaxation. I’m helping on the garden this week – answering questions about the design and planting, but what I most want to do is settle down amongst the umbellifers and peonies to drink in the sights and scents.
Jo’s planting takes my breath away with its subtle, natural combinations of form, texture and colour. I am particularly drawn to certain plants – as are many of the visitors to the garden – these are all cultivars that would be easy to grow at home in both formal and informal gardens:
Iris ‘Pink Charm’
A gorgeous bearded iris with a name that belies its delicate peachy falls and intense tangerine beard. This iris creates drama and height among the lower perennials on the margins of the garden. The fragrant flowers will reach 60cm and bloom throughout May and June. Iris need full sun and well-drained soil in a sheltered position. If you can give them the conditions they require (sadly not easy in my garden), they will repay you with bursts of peachy joy in your early summer borders. Without a doubt, my favourite plant in the Wedgwood Garden.
Iris ‘Pink Charm’
Eschscholzia ‘Ivory Castle’
Another flower attracting a lot of attention from the crowds is Eschscholzia (bless you) ‘Ivory Castle’, the Californian poppy. This delightful annual has glaucous feathery foliage and ivory flowers with a creamy eye. It’s not too late to sow seeds and as ‘Ivory Castle’ only grows to 40cm, it is ideal for softening the edges of beds and borders.
Paeonia ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’
This herbaceous peony has semi-double flowers that last well in a vase. Peonies prefer well-drained soil in full sun, and prefer a sheltered position. It will reach 90cm and produces scented blooms throughout May and June. The glowing coral-pink flowers fade as they age, revealing a centre filled with soft yellow stamens. It’s a real beauty.
Daucus carota ‘Dara’
Jo’s planting is light and airy using umbellifers like Ammi majus, Angelica archangelica, Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ – another of my favourites – and Daucus carota ‘Dara’. I grow this cultivated variety of wild carrot for its light burgundy umbels and ferny foliage. At 90cm, the flowerheads create drama above the surrounding planting, but don’t obscure the views beyond. As with many umbellifers, Daucus carota attracts pollinating insects and later in the season provides seeds for birds. Another bonus is the concave seedhead which is almost more beautiful than the flowers themselves.
Daucus Carota flowers and seedhead
Verbascum ‘Helen Johnson’
I love verbascum in all its shades and sizes – from native Verbascum nigrum (dark mullein) and Verbascum thapsus (great mullein) to cultivars like ‘Clementine’ and ‘Gainsborough’. ‘Helen Johnson’ was found as a chance seedling at Kew and its pinky-coppery shades bring together the dusky tones in Jo’s planting. Verbascum flowers attract a wide range of pollinating insects – bees, butterflies and flies. Rather wonderfully, hairs are also combed from stems and leaves by wool carder bees to use as nest material, and males guard areas of the plant for potential mates.
Ripening in the garden this afternoon are the last of the ‘White Marseille’ figs (Ficus carica); the first, and therefore somewhat miraculous, harvest for 14 years. On either side of the fig are the fruiting canes of the pink, seedless ‘Reliance’ grape (Vitis vinifera) and in the front garden, a handful of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) berries that survived the drought earlier in the year are developing their burgundy shine. The honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea) and pinkberries (actually a pink blueberry, Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’) also fruited for the first time this year and there were a even couple of mulberries on the juvenile ‘Charlotte Russe’ (developed from Morus rotundiloba), although I have to say I’m still unconvinced about their quality in terms of flavour.
We had a fair apple harvest from our espalier ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Egremont Russet’, although ‘Bountiful’ and ‘Fiesta’ sulked all spring and produced not one blossom. The plum (Prunus domestica ‘Opal’) had a successful year and the greengage (Prunus domestica subsp. italica ‘Cambridge Gage’) also produced a good harvest, although due to poor timing on our part we were away when the fruit ripened and on our return all that remained were a series of wasps’ bottoms poking provocatively out of each syrupy gage.
Quantity of Quince
But the delight of the year has been the success of our appealingly dishevelled quince tree (Cydonia oblonga), the aptly named ‘Meeches Prolific’. A couple of weeks ago, at five years old, it delighted us all with a harvest of around 100-150 small fruits, picked by my husband and daughter, each quince carefully handed down from the tree and placed reverently in a bucket which it soon became clear was far too small for the seemingly limitless supply hidden beneath the foliage. The quince harvest alone made my year in the garden complete. My only regret, fruit-wise, is the lack of space for that king of trees – the medlar.
I first discovered medlars when I moved down to Hertfordshire in 2003. Until that moment my fruit aspirations went no further than childhood memories of my dad’s ‘Laxton’s Superb’ apple trees, bilberries foraged on the Welsh mountains and the loganberry – a fruit that attained an almost mythic status in my memory as the sweetest food on earth when eaten warm from Aunty Florence’s garden, the berries almost as big as my mouth. But I’d never encountered anything like the medlar. Here was a fruit that offered neither immediate candied delight, nor vibrant hues; a fruit whose dun, leathery skin seemed a deliberate indication of its disinclination to be eaten. I was intrigued.
The tree stood in the corner of my friends’ new garden – a modest, rather overgrown patch with unexpected treasures lurking at the back of each brimming border. Their area has a rich horticultural history: situated on the borders of a medieval park dating from before 1380, then developed into a town pleasure garden in the 18th century. With the cottages and gardens themselves dating back to 1820s and 30s, theirs was a historically interesting garden with dynamic borders full of flowers and fruit – redcurrants, damsons, gooseberries, blackberries, quince, raspberries, rosemary, campanula, hollyhocks and clematis.
The garden in winter and with spring blossom (Image credit: Lindsay Cook)
I was attracted to the story behind this garden and the questions behind the design – who had planted with this balanced purpose of beauty and productivity – and what had the garden meant to them? Why had they chosen the majestic medlar as the cornerstone of the garden and what did they do with the fruits? The garden and its medlar tree ignited my interest in unconventional fruits and the stories that they can tell. We harvested the medlars in the garden for several years, bletting the fruits, watching the disintegration of the skins as the not-quite rotting took place and savouring the smoky date-apple flavours of the jellies and cheeses that we produced using methods that have been around for hundreds of years.
Both quinces and medlars were once popular fruit in the UK. In 1629 John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to Charles I, lists three varieties of medlars and six of quince in his study of plant cultivation, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. Gervase Markham (1568-1637) has advice for both ‘husbandmen’ and ‘housewives’ regarding storing and cooking these fruit. Husbandmen should ‘gather [medlars] about the midst of October after such time as the frost hath nipt and bitten them’ and lay them in ‘thicke woollen cloathe, and about the cloathes good store of hay, & someother waight of boards’ to heat them and bring them to a ‘perfect rottenesse.’ Quinces, on the other hand, should be stored away from other fruit ‘because their sent is so strong and piercing, that it will enter into any fruit, and cleane take away his naturall rellish’.
In The Well-Kept Kitchen, as well as advising housewives in matter of religion, temperance, dress sense and their knowledge of gardening, Markham also includes instruction in the art of making quince conserve, preserve, cake, paste and marmalade. 200 years later Eliza Acton continues the tradition with her recipes for quince juice, custard, jellies and marmalade, whilst Isabella Beeton’s 1860s recipes for medlar jelly and mebrillo (quince cheese) are the ones we use in our kitchen today.
Many years ago at university I bought Soup & Beyond by the New Covent Garden Soup Company – an exploratory cookery book for which we were required to ditch our student staples of chicken, pasta and cheese, and explore hitherto unknown ingredients like dill, lovage, buckwheat and buttermilk. One of the recipes for prince and pedlar soup looked intriguing, but I was at a loss to source the strange fruits so as I worked my way through the other recipes the prince and the pedlar remained uncooked, forgotten for the last twenty years. Yesterday, with huge piles of quince fragrantly ripening in boxes in the kitchen I remembered the old recipe and unearthed the soup book.
The Taste of History
Supper is now served: a warm yellow soup with a silky texture and a mellow sweet and sour flavour that reminds me of parsnip and orange. I’ve made cheese bread, so we’re all sorted for the evening. Whether your taste is for soups, jellies, poached fruit, marmalade or membrillo, quinces and medlars have so much potential and they deserve to be remembered.
What are your favourite autumn fruit recipes? Do you have any special quince and medlar concoctions? If so, please leave me a comment so that I can try them too. Thank you.
When my godson was three his favourite foods were apples and peas: a predilection that I naively assumed was the norm for small children. As my son started on solid foods I offered him fruit and vegetables with enthusiastic expectations, only to find he cried when peas appeared on his plate and the concept of eating apple brought on sulking and tantrums.
Perplexed, I persevered – we sowed seeds together, pricked out tomato seedlings, watched apples swell and picked as many colourful crops as we could – yellow ‘Allgold’ raspberries, ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, ‘Pinkberry’ blueberries, deep red ‘Boltardy’ beetroot, striped ‘Green Tiger’ tomatoes and purple-podded ‘Blauwschokker’ peas.
Gradually he started trying a wider range of fruit and vegetables – it’s hard not to get excited about ripening tomatoes when you can remember pushing the seeds into moist compost with your fingers. That was over 5 years ago, and this week my daughter (6) decided she likes our homegrown beetroot and my son (now 9) ate one of our James Grieve apples whole – an unimaginable feat just a year ago.
We have all benefited from growing food as a family. Each spring we choose our crops for the next growing season and from that moment, the anticipation begins. This February we made our choices and were soon surrounded by a colourful collection of seed packets from the Fun To Grow range, courtesy of Suttons Seeds. We began with Table Top Tomato, sowing the seeds almost immediately, then started off the delightfully alliterative Crocodile Cucumber, Mini Muncher Peas, spherical Bowling Carrots and the non-edible but nonetheless exciting Dancing Plant and Caterpillar Plant a few weeks later.
Recycling has been a family priority this year, so we began by making our own seed pots out of old newspaper. It’s a fun job and the kids quickly got the hang of wrapping the paper strips at just the right tension so they would slide off easily once the bottoms had been firmly secured.
Then we filled our pots with compost and read the seed packet instructions – learning about the varying depths, light conditions and germination temperatures that different seeds require.
Once the pots were labelled, we counted the days until germination and slowly but surely tiny shoots and seed leaves began to appear. The appearance of new growth, that magical emergence, fills cold spring days with joy for adult gardeners – so what a wonderful experience for young children for whom the world is naturally filled with enchantment.
In late spring we planted the Crocodile Cucumbers into a couple of broken buckets, the Table Top Tomatoes went in the greenhouse with the Caterpillar Plants, and the Mini Muncher Peas and Bowling Carrots began developing in the vegetable beds.
We ate peas fresh from the pod throughout June and the tomatoes are still being picked and ripening in the greenhouse. The cucumbers have produced so many fruit that we’ve had enough for tzatziki – another first for the kids, declared ‘delicious’ and requested as a regular dip with pitta and olives.
The Caterpillar Plants have bloomed all summer in the greenhouse – tiny yellow flowers which have turned into the eponymous caterpillars curled back on their stems, providing seeds for sowing next year. The Sensitive Plants didn’t germinate, so no scientific experiments to test whether the foliage responds to our touch this year. But it’s good that the kids experience growing failures as well as successes – one of the realities of working with nature.
Growing our own crops has, without doubt, had a positive effect on the way my kids approach what’s on their plates. But learning about how plants grow, how they provide for us and for wildlife, goes deeper than this. Such experiences help to form lifelong relationships with nature and develop an understanding of its fundamental role in our lives – providing us with enjoyment, wonder and the food upon which we rely.